Starting a Multimedia company after completing College may have been a bold move, venturing into the unknown and starting from a zero base.
I was young and wildly inexperienced. An enthusiastic 22-year-old startup looking to make the world a better place, one design at a time.
I understood it was going to be a tough and slow-paced venture to establish a healthy clientele base early. Especially true in the early years.
It took me many years and countless mistakes to become better at being a designer. I’m in my mid 30’s now and have since been recruited as a designer at Enabled Solutions. Through my learnings, I have identified eight-core design principles that have become a part of my ethos.
Don’t have a style
Many successful creative designers have a clear and identifiable style. Potential clients can easily recognize their work, and their style may become iconic in certain circles or communities.
Having a personal style is a great way to get new clients quickly. If you’re lucky, you can take off and become wildly successful and in high demand in a really short period of time.
Just like fashion styles come and go, last year’s design trends may now be passé. Having a distinguished style can certainly make you stand out from the crowd. However, a great designer will possess the ability to become a chameleon, knowing how and when to reinvent themselves to stay ahead of the curve. Always looking for new ways to visually communicate, instead of relying on the old trick of the hat.
It’s okay to reuse a style or a look every now and then — if it fits the brief. Other than that, a great designer’s signature is their diversity, not the ability to repeat oneself.
Ask early, ask often
Ask the obvious and uncomfortable questions, constantly. This part is key when you’re starting the design process.
A great designer gives their clients what they want. But here’s the catch: what clients ask for hardly ever is what they really want.
It’s the job of a designer to find out what it is that a client essentially wants. By asking the uncomfortable questions early, they can avoid venturing down the wrong pathway.
As a designer, it’s good practice to keep asking questions — but make sure they are the right ones. Your client may say that they want such and such, but why do they say that? Throughout my years I’ve developed a set of framing questions to help identify what my clients are looking for. What are you trying to achieve? What is the underlying problem you’re trying to overcome? What do you need? What is the job to be done? When do you need it by? How much time do you think this will take? What is your MVP?
If you’re going to solve a problem, you want sufficient information to solve it.
Finding answers to those questions puts you in good stead in providing your client with what they want. Spoiler alert: it hardly ever resembles what they initially asked for.
Explain, explain, explain
As a young designer, I kept to myself a lot. I was often secretive about my creative process. Believing that if a process that works well — it isn’t to be tinkered with.
It took me some years to realise that one of the most vulnerable things designers can do is to be completely transparent about their process, the choices they make, and the doubts they have.
I discovered that transparency is one of the habits great designers do well: they explain.
A great designer should explain why they make certain choices. Explain what they tried. Explain what didn’t work, and why. Explain what their uncertainties are.
Being good at explaining why you work the way you do achieves two things. Firstly, it forces you to continually review your process, which makes it easy to spot inaccuracies or false assumptions. Secondly, it helps clients relive your train of thought, making them more likely to understand where things come from. Showing empathy and understanding your client’s needs can go a long way.
Your goal, as a designer, is to put yourself in the shoes of the people you’re designing for to truly understand the problem you are trying to solve.
Learning to explain yourself will make your work more solid and coherent, and help clients understand how beautifully orchestrated the things you make are.
As a designer, it’s easy to become fixated on an idea or layout. As a rule of thumb, I try to provide at least three options that have been well considered. Providing multiple options is a useful discussion tool with the client. It opens a new line of dialogue, showcases your decision making and helps explain your design process to the client. Some designers prefer to provide the one option to pitch — this is okay too, after all, we are the experts, right?
In the past, I’ve used the Crazy, Medium Safe rule to help provide my clients with options and items to consider in their project. Providing a crazy “out there” design, an in-between and a safe design option, is a good way to show the extremities of what the client might be looking for. Additionally, this practice can help rein in client expectation, helping you steer them in the right direction.
For a designer, the crazy eights design method is a nice way to move past that layout or idea that you may have fixated on in your mind right from the early pitch meeting. Putting yourself through this process can provide insight into building additional concept options for the client to consider.
An essential for every great designer is to assume nothing — especially when it comes to creativity.
Assumption is the mother of all mistakes — Eugene Lewis Fordsworth; Philosopher
See, a great designer solves problems. To be able to solve a problem accurately and gracefully, you cannot make any assumptions. You need to know exactly what the variables are, and what the desired outcome is.
Only then can you start working on a solution. This is why a great designer does not jump to their tools right away. The first phase of any task, no matter how small, is always to ask questions. Do large amounts of research. Understand the product. Define the variables.
Customer satisfaction depends a lot on the interaction between your staff and your customers.
Signs that a designer that shows genuine interest is a key indicator to determine whether the outcome will be a great result. An individual working purely for money shows through in the work. Genuine human characteristics in a designer is a strong quality to have, often resulting in strong relationships and positive interactions.
A great designer will show kindness, be compassionate and will empathise.
Kindness becomes contagious, which can often lead to a better outcome. Customer satisfaction can happen when all stakeholders are happy with the result.
“Kindness doesn’t cost a penny, but its value is beyond measure to its recipient.” — Chris Holmes
Become a therapist
I was once approached by a client that said “Our UI just isn’t cracking it — we are just not getting the conversions we thought we’d get. We need to re-do this whole UI. The UX probably needs some re-working as well. People seem to be confused; they are not sure exactly how to get through the product.”
So my team and I took a step back and said: “Okay well that’s interesting. Maybe that’s what we’ll have to do, but first, let’s think about what the problem really is”.
So I started to call their prospects and their customers and asked: “so what do you think about their product?” The common consensus was “It’s great; we love it! We have no idea what the company does though.”
From that, we were are able to determine it wasn’t so much a product problem — it was a value proposition problem.
I think this is at the core of a lot of failures. You can’t put the onus on the product.
That’s like saying your child is doing an awful thing. Raising a child and raising a product — ultimately the responsibility is with the parent and the creator of that product. You can’t blame the product. The product isn’t the thing that’s failing.
For my team and I, this opened our eyes as to what was actually going on behind the scenes. That’s when you realise you are more than a designer/product person, you are also a therapist. A lot of the work you are doing is indirectly unrelated to the product itself.
The questions that you ask as a designer aren’t so much about “Is this the right colour? Is the typography right?” it’s more about “Why did this problem happen in the first place? What kind of decisions drove the outcome?”
Never stop learning
The design world is an ever-evolving fast-paced industry.
To strive to become a high-end designer, it’s important to have a strong desire to improve. Try to maintain a never stop learning mindset. Try to make time to do so.
Find a curiosity for something that matters, and then above all else, do something with it. Because while learning is invaluable, if you have all the knowledge in the world and do nothing with it, you’ve squandered the most valuable opportunity available–to make a difference.
These are eight core values I like to keep in my designer toolkit. Not only have they proven successful with clients and projects time and again, but they also keep me engaged in the design world, doing the work I love.
As a client: Working with a designer should be an enjoyable experience. If you can find a designer to work with who shares these core values, it will hold you in good stead for a healthy and enjoyable working relationship.
As a designer: Try to work with clients who treat you with respect and understand the value of your design — clients who understand your value holistically and what it can bring to their product.